The Next President of Peru? A Conversation with Keiko Fujimori Higuchi

While in Peru this week, I interviewed Keiko Sofia Fujimori Higuchi. Congresswoman Fujimori will most likely be a presidential candidate representing the political party Fuerza 2011 (Strength 2011), in the April 2011 presidential elections.

Keiko_NicoleNicole Ferrand with Keiko Fujimori at the interview.

Mrs. Fujimori is the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, who governed Peru from 1990 to 2000, and former Congresswoman, Susana Higuchi. “Keiko,” as people in Peru know her, is currently a Congresswoman in the Peruvian legislature representing the Alianza por el Futuro (Alliance for the Future) party.

During her father’s tenure, when she was only 19 years old, Keiko acted as First Lady from 1994 until 2000. Keiko Fujimori went to college in the United States where she earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston University in Business Administration. Soon after, she went to New York where she completed an MBA at Columbia University. According to the latest poll conducted by Ipsos Apoyo, Keiko is tied in first place with 22% of popular support.

On August 19, 2010 Mrs. Keiko invited us to her offices in Congress for the purpose of this interview.

NF: Keiko, how has your experience as a presidential candidate been and what has been the reaction of the Peruvian people to your possible candidacy?

Well, officially I am not a candidate yet since elections within my political party have to take place first. It is quite possible that in December “Fuerza 2011” will have primaries and the official results will be announced in January. But what sets me apart from other candidates is that I do publicly say that I want to be a candidate and I hope to have my party’s support and obviously the support of the Peruvian people. To answer the second part of your question, in recent months I have been traveling non-stop during the weekends inside Peru, first to help in the creation of our party and during this second stage, to introduce the regional and municipal candidates. And I am very surprised to see the support and receptivity of the Peruvian people. For example, I recently visited Cuzco, where I traveled to Quillabamba and Charate where the wells of the Camisea Gas are located, which is supposedly the bastion of Ollanta Humala, and the support of the population was overwhelming. Most of the people remembered my father’s time in office fondly and were extremely happy to see us there. When I was First Lady I traveled a lot but there are regions that I have not returned to since then, and one of them is Ucayali. I was there last week and was surprised to see the warmth of the residents who welcomed us with open arms; especially the women and the elderly who remembered dearly the public works my father inaugurated. In addition, young people seemed quite enthusiastic to get to know the candidate that represents them and I am quite happy with the warmth and the support that the Peruvian people have showed me so far.

How has your experience in Congress been? How is your relationship with the other political parties? Do you feel your time as a Congresswoman has helped you in your political training?

When I was First Lady, I was focused on social programs and it was only during the last two years when I became more involved in politics, participating actively in the decision-making process. But now that I am a Congresswoman, I am, without a doubt, in the center of Peruvian politics. For me it has been an enriching experience first, because I have been able to get to know the different political groups, whom I deeply respect and secondly because I have learned immensely from the Committees I have been part of. For example, the Committee of Economy, and the Committee that oversees the Budget where I worked until this year. Now I am working on the Housing Committee. In these groups, I have prioritized the technical debate and I have been able to understand much better how the State actually works, which has helped me evaluate how the national budget is being invested. One of my concerns is that only 50% of the municipal, regional and central investment budgets are being invested and we can do much better than that.

Some critics say that you don’t have experience and that you are a candidate because you are the daughter of Alberto Fujimori. How do you respond?

I may be young in age. I am 35 years old, but I became First Lady when I was only 19. I learned, since very young, the sense of duty; one has to do what one must, not what one wants. In addition, I have a pretty good academic background from some of the most competitive universities, such as Boston University where I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Business and also Columbia University where I earned an MBA. And most importantly, I have an exceptional team; so if some people decide to criticize me for my youth, I think they are mistaken; my youth is actually one of my biggest strengths and with reference to my experience, I have tons and to complement it, I have an extraordinary group of people behind me.

If you become President, what type of people will you look for?

One of my goals is to work with the best technicians that implemented the reforms of the ’90’s. For me, it is an honor that Jaime Yoshiyama accepted an invitation to be part of “Fuerza 2011.” He is helping me formulate a government plan and is also assisting in the search of great talent for the candidates that will represent us in Congress. Without a doubt, if we become government, we will look for people with the following characteristics: well prepared, with experience, with an impeccable reputation and with a great compromise to work and serve Peru. I will open the doors to independents and people from other political parties that want to work for our country.

With respect to terrorism and national security, what projects do you have and how will you respond to members of human rights’ groups that often obstruct progress in this matter?

In the first place, we have to act firmly against terrorism and we have to understand that it is a serious problem that affects the entire world; the United States, Spain, Colombia. In our country it has been controlled somehow, but we have to have in mind that there is always a risk that these groups get reorganized again. Therefore, there has to be zero tolerance. We have gone back, especially in 2003, when President Toledo, decided to grant penitentiary benefits to convicted terrorists without ever having received pressure from any international body. This was an initiative of President Toledo, and that is why there are more than 400 terrorists free today. In 2007, these benefits were eliminated but the damage has been done. I think it is imperative for the executive to do a follow-up of these people and make sure that they are not allowed to reorganize and strengthen. I am extremely concerned to learn that some students have marched to ask for the liberation of Abimael Guzman. This is the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know their real strength. But it is imperative that the intelligence agency has all the necessary information about these groups.

With respect to crime, we have also retreated. There are many cities in Peru where there is total impunity and where criminals feel free to do as they will. So it is extremely important that we pass laws in Congress that help us fight this problem. We have proposed that the death penalty be implemented for extreme cases such as child rape when the victim is younger than 10 years old, or for cases of assault followed by death. I want to make it clear, I am a Catholic and I do not believe in the death penalty, only as a dissuasive measure, to prevent these crimes from happening. We have just proposed the elimination of penitentiary benefits for grave crimes that is going to be debated today, and many political groups have already given their support to this proposal. But we must continue evaluating which other measures can be implemented to fight crime. In addition, we have to make sure the judges have the courage to impose drastic sanctions and it is an effort that has to be done together with the different governmental institutions.

Do you think Peru should withdraw from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights?

I hope not. Our Justice System is not one of the most efficient and sometimes, judicial processes take years to solve. Sadly, very often, the outcome is not fair. That is why it is so important to have an international body. But I reject, for example, the petition of the Court to financially compensate terrorists. I believe that these judges do not understand the suffering of the Peruvian people and I firmly believe they are mistaken when they ask for financial reward for terrorists. Now, President Garcia has proposed a formula that I think will stop any payment for these types of criminals. First, these people should pay back to the State the millions of dollars in damages they caused. I wish the Court would be more careful when they make such decisions and that they knew much better the reality of the cases they present and the reality of our country before they emit these sentences.

What do you think of the economy today? What measures could be implemented to continue growing but in a sustained way? How can we solve the problem of lack of infrastructure and capacity of the workers?

As a Peruvian, I am proud that we are one of the few countries that have continued growth despite the world crisis. This is due to the measures enacted during the ’90’s, which has been a process of 20 years during which the same economic model has been followed. Nevertheless, we have to act with caution because I think the crisis has not passed in its entirety. If we look at the statistics, in the United States, unemployment continues to be high and the measures to stimulate the economy have not been successful so we have to be cautious when we look at the world economies. It is important that Peru continues to grow but this growth cannot be too fast because it can cause inflation, which affects the purchasing power of the poorest people. I am going to be cautious when preparing the budget for next year and we will have a maximum deficit of 1% which we will keep in reserve and use just in case of a crisis, where we can spend it and stimulate the economy.

With reference to the lack of infrastructure, there is inefficiency in three levels: the central government, the regions and the municipalities. And this is due to several reasons. But one of the most important causes is the lack of technical capacity of the workers. President Garcia, in the year 2006, lowered the salaries, which was important in terms of sending a message of austerity. Nevertheless, I believe that this salary reduction should have been for politicians and not for technical personnel. And obviously, the vice-ministers and directors of the different ministries migrated to the private sector and now we do not have capable people to execute the budgets. Today our budget is twice what it was in 1999 but we only execute 50% of their investments. This is wrong.

We have to hire capable people, and pay them well. If not, we will not be able to employ them to execute the public works Peru needs. We also have to eliminate all the bureaucratic barriers that exist. I also believe it is important to create organisms dedicated exclusively to the construction of infrastructure; for example, when my father was President, the INFES was created, which was an institution which specialized in building schools, and when you build scale economies, you achieve better prices, with better products and more efficiency. We should do something similar and evaluate which other institutions we need to build infrastructure.

In foreign policy, how do you think your relationship with the Obama administration will be?

I am an admirer of President Obama. I have supported the free trade agreement and I think the good relations that both countries enjoy, benefit both nations. In addition, I studied in the United States and my husband is American, therefore I aspire and will work to keep strengthening our relations.

How will a Keiko Fujimori government handle its relations with Hugo Chavez?

I believe that we have to differentiate between the relationship with Mr. Chavez and with the Venezuelan people. And our relationship with the Venezuelan people has always been good because we need to grow together and also because there is a big Peruvian community in Venezuela. But this doesn’t mean that we will allow President Chavez to interfere in the political affairs of our nation. And in this matter I will be very firm and will prevent Mr. Chavez from harming us. To the contrary, our party and many other Peruvian politicians reject outright the irresponsible declarations of Mr. Chavez and consider that he has caused great damage to the integration of South America.

The levels of poverty have been diminished, but what other measures can be implemented to reduce it even more?

It is true, [that] if you observe the macroeconomic data, Peru has grown but when I travel to the most remote and marginal places, there is a lack of government investment and these people have lost all hope. They see that Lima grows but their localities don’t. I believe that one of the most important aspects for the fight against poverty is the construction of infrastructure. When people have access to water, public drainage, rural electrification and roads, the purchasing power of the people increases by 60%. I do not believe that it all can be done at once because the resources are scarce, but we do have to prioritize the implementation of infrastructure in the areas that are most remote. I think it is of utmost importance to advance the education system. During my father’s time in office, the construction of schools was a priority and 3,000 were built, I remember we inaugurated 1 per day. I recognize that during Mr. Toledo’s government, the salaries of the teachers augmented. But we need to improve the quality of the education. I believe it is important to modernize schools and give students computers and access to Internet and labs. In addition, I think that it is key that we provide kids with breakfast, especially those who live in rural areas. Sometimes these children have to walk between 1 and 3 hours to get to school and therefore, they get tired after having walked so long and cannot concentrate. We are proposing that in rural areas, the kids that attend elementary schools should also be given lunch. We have estimated that this will cost the states 100 million soles, 0.4% of the national budget, which is completely feasible. We also need to prepare the teachers better because children learn according to the level of knowledge their professor’s have; therefore we have to improve their level. It is key that we develop agreements with private and public universities so that the teachers can attend, during their months of vacations, courses to improve their skills, specially those educators who are motivated. In addition, we have to improve their salaries, especially for teachers that are better evaluated by their students. I believe that we have to prioritize meritocracy and promote competition within the educators.

There is a lot of misinformation outside Peru with respect to the reasons why your father is in jail. Do you have a plan to change this?

There has been an extremely strong campaign in the media for 8 years, inside Peru and outside, against Alberto Fujimori, his party and his family. It takes years to change an image and a perception. That is why many foreign journalists are so surprised to learn that our political group, the Fujimorismo, is tied in first place in the polls with current Lima mayor Luis Castañda Lossio, and that it enjoys a lot of popular support after such a dirty media campaign. I firmly believe that history will give my father the place he deserves, as the best President Peru has had in its history. But this will be a long process where we have to differentiate the good from the bad and where we can evaluate results more objectively. I believe that it is the Peruvian people who will vindicate my father as well and then little by little the perception in Peru and in the world will change.

How do you respond to those that say that Fujimorismo is divided?

99% of the leadership of the Fujimorismo is working for Fuerza 2011. It is true that the Reggiardo family separated from the group, but historical leaders like Martha Chavez, Luz Salgado and Absalón Vasquez, are still working with us. Within the Fujimorismo, there are strong personalities like Martha Hildebrandt and Luisa Maria Cuculiza, but we are all together. It gives me great satisfaction to see that the different factions and personalities of the Fujimorismo are working together for the same goals. What is also important is that through Fuerza 2011, we are opening the doors for young people to participate, which was difficult before, but now we are right on track. And I believe that the results of our work will be seen in the elections of April 10, 2011.

In addition to the questions I have asked, do you wish to add anything else?

I want to ratify our compromise to fight against poverty, against terrorism and to maintain the economic principles for Peru to keep growing; and for this we will keep following the free market model. We will also provide an equality of conditions for foreign and local investors, providing clear and open rules and offer predictability to foment investments. And if this message reaches the United States, I believe it is imperative to ratify our compromise to fight against drug trafficking. One of the great achievements of my father’s government was to reduce the areas of coca leaf farming from 120,000 hectares to 30,000. And this was not done by compulsive eradication but with programs and projects of alternative farming. We also worked together with the population and the United States helped us in the financing of these programs. Sadly, Peru, today, has more than 100,000 hectares of coca leaf farming again because these programs were not continued. I think it is pivotal to work with the different populations for them to be able to change crops but not in a mandatory way. Finally, we are committed to keep fighting and achieve the levels of the ’90’s. Today we have more resources and therefore, more possibilities to obtain better results.

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